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How ‘impermanence’ can help us all get along

Psychology considers a novel solution to human tribalism

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We are born colorblind—literally. Newborn color vision is limited, lacking many of the visual distinctions that characterize mature sight. Soon enough, though, color takes over, figuratively as well as physiologically: We learn to see ourselves and others as parts of particular groups. Are we black or white? Male or female? What’s our religion, our language, our preference in music or food? Each time a child hears a description of a person or witnesses a human interaction, it contributes to the formation of her identity and sense of her role in the world.

What’s more, she begins to learn to prefer those things that are most similar to herself. By 3 months, a baby shows a marked bias towards faces of those who share her race. By 5 months she prefers the sound of her native language to any other—and the people who speak it to those who don’t. By age 4, these preferences translate into negative attitudes toward outgroup members—that is, those people who are not like the child and her family in some marked way.

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Our preferences for people like us extend to all kinds of identities, whether they’re things we’re born with, like race, or a matter of circumstance, such as being a member of a certain profession. Even things as trivial as what kind of photographs you prefer or whether you’re made a member of a “green” or a “blue” group can swing the balance in someone’s favor or against. We even tend to encourage others to be more like us, if at all possible. They should check out our neighborhood, we tell them; they should try our favorite wine and agree about the political situation in Syria. At the benign end of the spectrum, our need for others to be like us comes through in our obsession with things like advice columns. On the grimmer end, it takes the form of religious crusades, racial bigotry, and ethnic cleansing.

Now, however, new research is suggesting that there may be a way to circumvent this predilection: The key is to change how we perceive the permanence of our own personal qualities. If we think an identity or a situation in our own lives is fixed and unchangeable, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo found, we are more inclined to negatively judge others who don’t share that identity. Intriguingly, however, this perception of permanence is open to adjustment. By reminding people that the categories we fall into may not be so fixed, we seem to be able to defuse the assumption that everyone would be happier if only they were like us.

To the researchers, what happens when we play up the malleability of our identities has implications for how we can learn to coexist more peacefully. After all, our desire for people to be like us “is something that obscures our ability to respect other people’s preferences,” notes study first author Kristin Laurin, a professor of organizational behavioral at Stanford Business School. “If I see my status as pretty permanent, I see other people who don’t share my status as unhappy. I assume they want to be like me. I assume they should want to be like me. And that’s simply something that’s not true.” Change that perception of stability, it turns out, and our attitudes—and actions—may change along with it.

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As a graduate student, Laurin became interested in the well-established human tendency to see the world as more fair than it actually is—and thus to explain away and legitimize existing social realities. That tendency, the theory goes, is closely tied to our perception that what exists now—where you live, what you do, where you go to university—will exist always. The more entrenched you are in a situation, the more likely you are to defend it. So could making the world seem less stable, Laurin wondered, help us stop rationalizing the status quo?

That question led to a collaboration with University of Waterloo social psychologists David Kille and Richard Eibach, on a series of studies that have now been published in Psychological Science. The studies examined the perception of stability in relationships—and how that perception in turn affected attitude and judgment about others. What the researchers learned, over four separate experiments, was that the more we perceive own relationship status (that is, single or coupled) as stable, the more we idealize that status and the more favorably we judge others who share it—and on the flip side, the less favorably we judge those who don’t.

‘If I see my status as pretty permanent, I see other people who don’t share my status as unhappy. I assume they want to be like me.’

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In one study, conducted on Valentine’s Day, people judged those who, like them, were either in a relationship or single as more happy and fulfilled—but only if they saw their own situation as stable. If they saw it as unstable, they became far more sympathetic to people in the other state. Similarity alone was not enough; a central component of their bias was that perception of permanence.

That dynamic also held in contexts where relationships were beside the point. In another experiment, researchers manipulated participants’ perceptions of how stable their relationships were. Then they asked them to judge an applicant in a mock interview, which included a note of whether applicants were single or in a relationship. Individuals who had been encouraged to see their own status as stable judged same-status applicants more favorably. If, on the other hand, they had been induced to see their own situation to be less permanent, the bias disappeared. Similarly, people’s feelings about a fictional political candidate became more flexible if they had been induced to see their relationships as more impermanent.

Wendi Gardner, a social psychologist at Northwestern University who studies social inclusion and self-definition, describes the results as hinging on trust. “For people who are in a highly stable situation, there’s this extra boost of familiarity and trust,” she says.

Why is the stability of our own identities, or even our life choices, so important? One possibility has to do with simple rationalization: Once we make a choice, we want to justify it—especially if it’s one we don’t see ourselves unmaking. In other contexts, we see this phenomenon play out all the time: We value objects more once we’ve purchased them, and hold offhand opinions far more strongly once we’ve stated them out loud. “It makes sense to me that people are motivated to believe that their current lifestyle decisions are superior to other options,” says social psychologist Eli Finkel, whose own research focuses on interpersonal relationships and conflict, “rather than an arbitrary choice draw from those options.”

Evolutionarily, too, this rationalization may make a good deal of sense. “From an evolutionary standpoint, people who have learned to be content and keep going and happy and stable in less ideal situations would be better off, more likely to do well, to get resources, both social and otherwise, than their dissatisfied, complainy, always-wanting-to-change-things neighbors,” points out Gardner. It makes sense, in other words, to have a slight positive delusion about the desirability of your own situation.

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The powerfuleffects of manipulating how we think about permanence suggest that this could be an innovative way to deal with prejudice. Laurin suggests that this may be possible even in such seemingly stable areas as race or religion. “Race is often perceived as a permanent, immutable characteristic of a person,” she says. “But more recently, people have started to think of race as a social construct, so in that way, it would be less permanent. It’s an interesting avenue of research, to see if coming to view race as more of a social construct would diminish racial prejudice.”

Similar logic can be applied to religion (more permanent, or more fluid and changeable?) and gender (a given at birth, or something that we can determine ourselves as we grow older?). In all cases, framing these characteristics as changeable could serve to mitigate the prejudices that permeate social relations. It wouldn’t be the first time such an intervention has worked: Psychologist Carol Dweck has found that if we’re induced to adopt the mindset that our own intelligence can grow with practice, as opposed to being fixed at birth, it improves our academic performance and our ability to learn.

In a sense, these new psychological findings only provide evidence for beliefs that have long been central in certain religious and philosophical traditions. For over 2,000 years, Buddhists have believed that only by embracing impermanence can we be truly happy. Nothing is fixed; everything is constantly changing; and only by understanding that reality can we ever hope to achieve tranquility. Similarly, writing in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., the Greek philosopher Heraclitus proclaimed that “everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed,” and emphasized understanding this natural flux as central to self-knowledge.

Some psychologists are beginning to explore these kinds of connections within their experimental research. A meeting between a group of psychologists and the Dalai Lama in March of 2000, for example, led to a collaboration between two leading emotion researchers, Paul Ekman and Richard Davidson, and a group of Buddhists that has since yielded a deeper understanding of the nature of happiness. The research by Laurin and her team suggests another new insight into a very old piece of spiritual wisdom: If we embrace the centrality of impermanence, we aren’t just making ourselves more satisfied. We are changing how we view and judge the people around us—an act whose repercussions might be to bring them greater peace as well.

Maria Konnikova is the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” (Viking, January 2013).
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